The neoliberal agenda at the heart of the EU

For anarchists one of the first issues we always look at is how are decisions made. When you come to the EU this is a mysterous process that very few understand. But we can say for sure that the people of Europe have no real say in any of the decisions reached in out name. Here we look at the mechanisms by which many of key economic decisions that drive the EU are reached.

The economic agenda of the EU is carefully buried behind layers of boredom and jargon. Despite this in recent years as the pace of so called 'reform' has quickened some, like transport workers facing privitisation have been forced to unpick this jargon.

What soon emerges is an agenda driven solely by corporate interests. Profit is to be the bottom line on everything from transport to health to the environment. Fine sounding generalizations are followed by tightly worded specifics that make the one test that must be passed the economic one.

The odd thing about this is that if the citizens of Europe were to engage in setting the European agenda it would almost certainly reverse the current priorities. Instead of profit before all we would probably see an agenda dominated by quality of life issues like education, healthcare and the environment. So where does the EU's actual agenda come from?

For an anarchist the obvious answer is 'the ruling class' but rather than leave it at that it is useful to untangle the web by which these decisions are formulated, made and then monitored. For what emerges from behind the curtain are the most powerful corporations in Europe, bodies with no pretence of any mandate beyond their combined turnover of 950 million and the fact they employ some four million workers.[1]

In Ireland in recent years the mechanisms that drive the planning process have become a matter of public knowledge as tribunal after tribunal hears evidence of brown envelopes stuffed with cash being handed over in return for favorable rulings from politicians. This is a sort of comedy version of what happens on the European level where an army of 10,000 industrial lobbyists haunt the corridors of Brussels.

By far the most powerful and exclusive of these is the collection of the 40 or so biggest European corporations who jointly lobby the EU through the quaintly named 'European Round Table of Industrialists'. These are nearly all household names with Ireland being represented by Michael Smurfit.

The ERT is normally careful to frame its demands in a way that suggests they will be good for everyone (and not just the profits of the corporations). But in the run up to the Dublin Summit, the mask slipped a little. The ERT wrote to all members of the European Council to express their concern about the continuing erosion of Europe's competitiveness'.

The appendix to this letter includes the line "Accustomed to social safety nets and an assured standard of living, the general public in much of Europe fails to see either the benefit of or need for competitive attitudes. Large state and semi-state sectors mostly shielded from competition are similarly heedless of the warning signs"[2]

This is a bit of a slip of the tongue from the ERT as normally they dress up their demands in far more careful language. But here it emerges into the open, an end to 'social safety nets' and 'an assured standard of living'. The language is still a little jargonized but it is easy enough to translate it into an end to free social services like health and education and an end to the very limited protection from absolute poverty found in the dole and pensions.

How do they propose to achieve this? Well in reality it is already underway. In Dublin in the last year a furious battle was fought against the removal of one such social service, free refuse collection. All sort of environmental excuses may have been trotted out to explain why Michael Smurfit should pay the same bin tax as the guy who empties his bins but the truth is this is part of the neoliberal agenda to remove social services.

In terms of education recent years have seen the growth of the private college industry and now serious talk are underway aimed at making the larger colleges go private in a decade or so. In healthcare an increasingly inadequate public health system means large and large numbers of workers feeling they need the assurance e of private health schemes with the VHI or BUPA. The existence of this two tier health system mean that under EU law the entire health system can be opened up to 'competition'. Public health is being quietly wound down so it is no more than the last refuge of the chronically poor. In telecoms we have seen the privitisation of Telecom. In transport we see the targeting of Dublin Bus and Aer Lingus for privitisation .

But as far as the ERT is concerned 'we an't seen nothing yet'. The ERT regularly produces lobby documents for the EU bodies. Almost all point out that the ERT represent corporations that employ millions and have a turnover of billions in case the politicians and bureaucrats forget for a moment who they really work for. We can confirm that the EU bureaucrats do know which side their bread is buttered on. ERT letters and lobby documents have for some years formed the basis of the agreements at the subsequent EU summits.

For instance the ERT 'Message from the European Round Table of Industrialists to the Barcelona European Council' sent before the 2002 Barcelona summit complained of "continuing resistance to liberalisation of electricity and gas markets" and "too little progress on pension reform". Sure enough the official 'Barcelona European Council, 15-16 March 2002: Presidency conclusions' include; on page 10 (pt. 25) "..the European Council calls for the reform of pension systems to be accelerated .."[3]. On page 15 (pt 37) it "urges the Council and the European Parliament to adopt as early as possible in 2002 the pending proposals for the final stage of the market opening of electricity and gas". And under "Effective liberalisation - Electricity and gas" on page 37 it reads "set an ambitious calendar at the Spring Summit for [corporate] access to free supplier choice."

Lets stop for a moment to explain some of the jargon above. Liberalisation as you are probably already aware is corporate speak for privatization of public utilities. But perhaps 'pension reform' sounds nicer? Perhaps not, among the reforms demanded by the ERT are ending "policies that push up the costs of pensions, such as automatic links between benefits and wages and encouragement of early retirement."[4] So the ERT wants to end the situation where some pensions increase when wages increases and where some people can choose to retire early. In other words lets make people work as long as possible and then pay them as little as possible when they retire.

The ERT may hide its demands behind jargon but is fairly honest about the access it enjoys to European politicians on its web page to make these demands. Under working methods it includes "At European level, the ERT has contacts with the Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament. ...Every six months the ERT meets with the government that holds the EU presidency to discuss priorities. ... At national level, each Member has personal contacts with his own national government and parliament, business colleagues and industrial federations, other opinion-formers and the press."

The Irish governments official EU summit features the prominent statement that "The Lisbon Strategy, to make Europe the most competitive and dynamic economy in the world, is a major priority for the Irish Presidency of the EU". Of course very few of us know what the Lisbon agenda is and may even think that a 'competitive and dynamic economy' is good for us. The Lisbon Agenda specifically targets "gas, electricity, postal services and transport" for privitisation. Which we have learned means worse working conditions for those who provide such services and higher costs for those of us who consume them.

Beyond this where did the Lisbon Agenda come from? It came out of the EU's 'Jobs Summit' in Lisbon (March 2000). Baron Janseen of the ERT wrote that "The European Round Table of Industrialists and our Competitiveness Working Group were very much involved in the preparation of the Summit," Indeed this summit also identified pensions systems as candidates for privatization, as we have seen another piece of the ERT agenda.

The ERT has also kept the pressure on for rapid implementation of this Lisbon Strategy. Before the 2001 Stockholm summit they sent a letter to the European leaders expressing "concern that the progress in achieving objectives fixed in Lisbon was too slow, European competitiveness is being held back by the reluctance of several individual member states to implement at national level actions agreed in Lisbon". Pretty much sounds like an end of year report from a headmaster doesn't it!

And of course the European Commission also released an evaluation of the implementation of the Lisbon decisions, with a set of demands calling for specific commitments to be taken at Stockholm. The demands are almost identical to those submitted by the ERT. In fact if you study the ERT documents and the EU policies that are formulated shortly after they are issued you can see the depth of the influence this unelected and secretive club of the top 40 or so European corporate bosses has. The Stockholm summit also asked the European Commission to "prepare a review on the issue of moving towards increased involvement of the private sector in education and pension systems, again two core ERT demands".

If you search the Irish media in the run up to the Mayday protests you will probably not find a single mention of the ERT outside of the business pages. While the press spokespeople for the Dublin Grassroots Network have to answer endless questions about a non-existent riot plan no journalist seemed to be interested in what we had to say about the ERT. Whether this is a product of the EU success in making their documents so boring and jargonised that people turn off at the first mention of EU policy, or whether its due to the fact that those who own and control the media are wealthy fellow travelers of the corporation bosses is something we can only speculate on.

Perhaps we are picking on the ERT too much? It's estimated that Brussels hosts some 500 industry lobby groups employing some 10,000 professional lobbyists. 1999 for instance saw a multi-million Euro lobbying campaign by the biotech companies which saw the introduction of the industry friendly 'Patents on life' directive. Changes to Article 133 was one of the key issues of the Nice treaty (but one ignored by the media). According to ATTAC - Ireland, "a BBC "Newsnight" investigation revealed that industry chiefs of the services lobby-group, the European Services Forum, held exclusive meetings with the EU's Article 133 Committee, which sets the European Commission's trade policies. The Article 133 Committee's deliberations are supposedly confidential. All other social partners, trade unions, Civil society NGO's, small business organisations are excluded from these meetings."[5]

The point here is that EU decisions are driven not by the needs of the people of Europe but by the wishes of the European based corporations. These corporations produce drafts that are later turned into EU policy and then the follow the implementation of these drafts and issue 'end of term' reports. Because this process is more distance and obscure then the identical process that occurs at the national level the vast majority of the population are unaware that this is even happening.

The Europe Union being built from above can never satisfy the needs of the European working class. Any system constructed in this manner will always end up serving the bosses. We need a Europe built from below.

Andrew Flood (May 2004)


1, in their letter to Bertie Ahern, Spring 2004 they citied a turnover of 1,400 billion.


3 Barcelona European Council, 15-16 March 2002: Presidency conclusions, online at

4 Will European Governments in Barcelona

keep their Lisbon promises? Message from the European Round Table of Industrialists to the Barcelona European Council, March 2002, online at

5 Conor O'Brien, ATTAC Ireland, Submission to the Forum on Europe, 1st December 2001, online at

This text is from the pamphlet 'Whats wrong with the EU'.

You can read the rest of the pamphlet online or you can download and print out the PDF version

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